Auburn football: Reassessing the Tigers after a 2-1 start
Auburn was one of the toughest teams to predict in the long preseason heading up to this fall. Firing former coach Gus Malzahn was just a step. Hiring the next successful coach was the most important move in rebuilding a program that seems to have lost its way.
The Tigers went with Bryan Harsin, an offensive minded coach with success as a head coach. Other prominent programs have struggled to find a coach with Harsin’s resume. The move was widely thought of as a good hire for the Tigers. Auburn administrators and fans rejoiced. Then the Tigers lost to Penn State on Saturday 28-20. There’s no shame in losing to a higher ranked team on the road, but it’s a stark reminder that Auburn is no where near championship level just yet.
Things seemed to be going well before the Penn State game. Auburn beat Akron 60-10 and Alabama State 62-0. It was a perfect beginning for the new system that Harsin was implementing on offense, defense and overall as a program. Given the two lopsided wins, Harsin didn’t have to show much of his offense that made him so effective in seven seasons as head coach at Boise State.
However, that didn’t help against the Nittany Lions as they lost 28-20 on Saturday. Before we overreact to one loss, remember that Harsin won 10 games per season five times in his first six seasons in charge of the Broncos, not counting the COVID-19 debacle of last season.
What have we learned in the first 3 games?
We’ve learned much about Auburn and how Harsin runs his offense after the first quarter of play this season. No. 1, Auburn’s offense is much more multiple and less dependent on a small number of plays. Under Harsin, Auburn can run the ball in different ways than with the previous staff. Lastly, Auburn’s offensive passing tree and the visibility to see the receivers is immensely better.
Auburn’s defense also appears to be better. The Tigers were highly rated after two games this season but the opponents made those numbers a bit inflated. After giving up 28 points to Penn State, Auburn is still the second-best team in the SEC in scoring defense. As long as the Tigers end the season in the top third of the SEC this season, Harsin should be happy with that.
Should we revise preseason expectations?
This would largely depend on what your preseason thoughts were. With Alabama dominating, LSU faltering and Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas undergoing a rebuild, Auburn could have been anywhere from 2nd to 5th in preseason SEC West predictions. So far, Auburn and Texas A&M look like they are vying to be the second-best team in the West.
Finishing second to Alabama in the SEC West is nothing to be ashamed of. So far, Auburn has a great chance to do just that. Finishing third to Bama and Texas A&M in Harsin’s first season wouldn’t even be that bad.
Who has emerged?
Bo Nix’s improvement has been phenomenal. With a new offense and a new attitude, Nix has been a huge surprise throughout the first two games this season, albeit against lesser opponents. After the Penn State loss, Nix is somewhere in the middle of the SEC pack in almost every passing category. That will work nicely if it holds up throughout the season.
Auburn is also third in the SEC in rushing offense, which is very good considering its past struggles on the ground. The Tigers rank eighth in passing offense. That should continue to improve. Auburn’s coaches must prove they have even more faith in Nix. He completed 21-of-38 passes for 185 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions against Penn State. Harsin knows what he has in Nix. Now, it’s time to get the ball downfield consistently in the passing game.
Are they who we thought they were?
Again, what did you think they were before the season? I believe Auburn is the second- or third-best team in the SEC Western Division so, admittedly, the Tigers are a bit better than I thought they’d be. But remember, that’s just a first quarter assessment with two easy wins on the schedule. Things get much tougher next month when the Tigers dive head first into the SEC schedule. Any last-second tuneups must be made this week against Georgia State before Auburn’s first SEC game, Oct. 2 at LSU.